Conferencing In


Heritage students shine on the national level

Eliseo Alcala was hired by Noel Communications just before he graduated in December 2018. A computer science major, Alcala had participated
in the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/ Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) 2018 conference in San Antonio, TX. There he presented a research paper on “Broadcasting Technologies and Data Mining Techniques” – a hot topic in computer science. Representatives from Noel said they were impressed by the opportunities given Heritage students on cutting-edge technology research.

Likewise, computer science major Cesar Flores was hired by the second largest company in Yakima, Alliant Communications two years ago, even before graduation. Flores got a jump – make that two jumps – on the competition, not only through his participation in the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in Tampa in 2016, but also at the International Conference on Ambient Systems, Network and Technologies Conference 2016, in Madrid, Spain.

Conferences give students the opportunity to meet with top-level scientists such as Dr. Mario Capecchi, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Psychology or Medicine (center). Here he is pictured with (left to right) students Juan Cabrera and Rosario Ramirez, Heritage professor Dr. Robert Kao, and student Alondra Zaragoza-Mendoza.

Creating meaningful opportunities for all students is one of Heritage University’s fundamental promises. For STEM students like Flores and Alcala, that promise includes meaningful research presentation opportunities at national and international academic conferences. These research internships and academic conferences are game changers – and often life changers – for Heritage students.

Seniors Katie Wentz (above) and Alexis Oxley (below right) were invited to present at the Murdock Science Conference last fall. Wentz took first place in the poster competition.

For STEM majors – whether computer science, biology, environmental science, biomedical sciences or a host of other majors – academic conferences provide a rare and meaningful way to set oneself apart, both academically and experientially.

The chance to spend two or three days at a conference, on another campus, in another city, steeped in STEM, presenting your own research to other academics, and networking with decision makers at graduate schools as well as leaders in STEM industries is a rare opportunity for undergraduate students anywhere.

For Heritage’s students, it’s part of the educational experience, and all STEM students are encouraged to participate.



When they do – many who may never have set foot on an airplane, travel cross-country, and those for whom public speaking has been a life- long fear, present their research before hundreds of people – they are opening the door to an array of academic and career possibilities.

“Students go to a conference not quite sure how they measure up, and they learn other students from bigger schools, are their peers,” says Dr. Kazuhiro Sonoda, Heritage provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. “They learn they are not alone in their efforts and struggles, or their achievements. The whole experience is eye-opening and inspirational.”

“These conferences are comprised of a very high-performing, intelligent, accomplished groups of academics,” says Richard Swearingen, chair of Heritage’s Department of Math and Computer Science. “All these companies are there to meet our students and university graduate programs are there to recruit them.

“One of the ways we position students to be able to compete is that we give them something extra. Research-based internships and the experience of presenting at conferences are that something extra.”


The Society for Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics
& Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Conference. Mellon Mays Western Regional Conference (MMWRC). The Murdock Science Conference (MSC).

Lots of long names and acronyms, but each conference represents one thing for Heritage’s STEM students: academic and personal growth.

The prerequisite for students’ conference experience is simple: Conduct meaningful research and communicate your results. How? Internships.

Students’ participation in conferences starts with their internship and research experiences. Robyn Raya, environmental studies, has conducted several projects, including an air quality study conducted with support from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Heritage faculty help students find research opportunities, either on campus, within industry or business or at another educational institution. About a quarter of STEM students doing internships do their first internship on campus.

“When they intern on campus, they learn the basics of research here with one of their professors,” says Jessica Black, Ph.D., director of the Center for Indigenous Health, Culture & the Environment and chair of Heritage’s Science Department.

“It’s a good place to learn the principles and make mistakes. Things don’t always come out perfectly, and that’s ok. They’re learning. They’re enthusiastic.”

Computer science professor John Tsiligaridis, Ph.D., helped his students Alcala and Flores find their research internships. Working closely with each of his students, Tsiligaridis knows their strengths and interests. He regularly connects with his many contacts on and off campus to identify or craft internships.

“John is particularly adept at anticipating changes in computer science and seeing what’s going to be cutting edge,” says Swearingen. “He’s very good at getting research and internship placements.”

The Yakima Valley’s agribusiness focus means lots of STEM internship possibilities off-campus, including the following internships, many of which are funded by grants through the Center for Indigenous Health, Culture & the Environment (CIHCE):

• Michael Buck, an environmental studies major, interned with Yakama Nation Fisheries.

• Katie Wentz, a biology major, interned at the United States Department of Agriculture ARS Temperate Tree Fruit and Vegetable Research in Wapato.

• Yanet Torres, a biology major, and biomedical science major Autumn Teegarden worked at Washington State University-Prosser in its agricultural research facility.

• Paige Delp, Alex Martinez, Xavier Martinez and Jose Figueroa, all studying environmental sciences, worked on biochar projects in a Yakima Valley orchard, examining biochar’s role in water retention.

Black and several colleagues have even led a number of environmental science/studies majors to Costa Rica to do an assessment of tropical stream habitats and a survey of species of birds that frequent certain types of vegetation.

“Whatever students’ research experience, they own that experience. Then they develop their academic interests and their work based on their own background and skill sets,” she said.


Once the internship and research has been done, a student will look at conference options with his or her advisor.

Conferences typically include a keynote speaker – often a renowned scientist – luncheons with speakers, opportunities for socialization and even field trips.

For their presentations, some students prepare a poster that features information about their research process and results. Others give oral presentations.

Some Heritage students receive special recognition for their presentations – students like Juan Cabrera who went to SACNAS twice, attended other conferences, and won awards for his presentations. Brothers Abraham and Andrew Calderon, who graduated in 2016, presented at numerous conferences, won awards and have both gone on to graduate school on the East Coast.

Samuel Small, a 2013 HU computer sciences graduate who’s now the director of the information technology department at Centralia College, says the first conference he attended was the beginning of many meaningful professional and personal relationships.

Now finishing his master’s with Georgia Tech, he’s done presentations at other conferences, has been invited to speak at conferences, and has produced white papers in his areas of expertise.


Faculty like Tsiligiradis and Black almost always accompany their students to conferences. What they see there and afterward is transformational and profound.

“Every time we take students to conferences they come back with a renewed drive,” said Black. “We see over and over why having an academic dream and keeping that alive is so important. We’ve seen them come back with ideas not only about new career options and avenues for grad school, but ideas about research they want to pursue,
and for our Native students, things they want to communicate with their tribe about.”

“It’s an amazing resume builder, and it’s something students may not have had the opportunity to do if they were at a larger school,” said Swearingen. “It can make the difference between getting into grad school or not, when they ask them what their research interests are, our students can answer that.” page11image50103312

Geeking Out Over Tech

Samuel Small (B.S., Computer Science, 2013) is the Director of Information Technology and a computer science instructor at Centralia College. He is completing his master’s degree from Georgia Institute of Technology and is looking into Ph.D. programs.

Heritage’s computer science program is challenging, rigorous – and tailored for the success of each student.

Small but mighty— That’s how people who know it like to describe Heritage’s Computer Science program.

Though a relatively small number of students graduate from the program each year, they leave Heritage well educated in their subject matter, confident in their abilities, and often having studied highly specialized curriculum developed specifically in response to what’s needed by employers.

Having earned their Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science or Bachelor of Arts in Information Technology, most of Heritage’s computer science majors go right to work – as computer programmers, security specialists, systems analysts, database administrators, web administrators, software engineers and network administrators.

Some 15 to 20 percent go on to pursue graduate studies. HU computer science grads have gone on to some of the most prestigious graduate schools in the United States, including Loyola University, the University of Chicago and the University of Washington.

How does this small department achieve such big results?

A rigorous curriculum taught by outstanding faculty, a low teacher-to-student ratio, and a commitment to making real- world experience a part of each student’s education make all the difference.


A student majoring in Computer Science at Heritage must be ready for an academic challenge. Required courses for the degree include Algorithms and Data Structures, Computational Complexity, Design and Construction of Large Software Systems and Computer Architecture. Non-computer science requirements include a full calculus sequence, math, algebra, statistics, physics and English.

It was precisely that kind of challenging curriculum that 2013 HU graduate Samuel Small sought.

Small started working on computers as a teen. He knew them inside and out, but he also knew he needed a formal education to have a career in computer science.

Small looked at a number of schools that offered the Bachelor of Science degree he needed, including Heritage. “Heritage’s program was similar to the major state schools – same requirements for your degree, same basic class structure,” said Small. “I wanted local – that was really important to me. And when I talked with Richard (Swearingen), I understood that if I went there, I wouldn’t be missing out on anything just because it was a small school.”

Dr. John Tsiligaridis leads a lecture on the design and analysis of algorithms in one of his upper-level courses.


He not only didn’t miss out in terms of classes, he gained from close relationships with his professors, especially John Tsiligaridis, Ph.D., who teaches computer science, and Swearingen, who teaches math and chairs the Department of Math and Computer Science.

“Our cohort was four students, and I had five professors in all my time at Heritage. I really liked that,” said Small.

A constant for Small throughout his studies at Heritage was Tsiligaridis, who taught all of his computer science courses.

Tsiligaridis’s most recent Ph.D. is in Computer Science Engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also holds a Ph.D. in Computer Networks from National Technical University in Athens, Greece., as well as a Master of Science in OR and Informatics, a Master of Philosophy in Data Mining and two bachelor’s degrees.

Tsiligaridis – “John” to his students – is known for the personal and caring relationships he builds with each of them. Tsiligaridis worked with Small where he needed it, knowing he had more computer knowledge than his fellow students.

“Because I knew a lot of the content already, the time John and I spent together was focused on him mentoring me on the more challenging work,” he said. “John really cares about all his students. It was a huge plus of the Heritage experience.”


When your department is small, it can be nimble, said Swearingen, and that’s much to the benefit of the Heritage computer science major.

“The computer science realm evolves rapidly, and so staying ahead of the curve is important. Our size allows us to be responsive to change in the world of computer science and adjust our curriculum to make sure our students get to work on what is most relevant.”

Tsiligaridis maintains close working relationships with people in business in the Yakima Valley and beyond, so he’s continually aware of what’s needed today that may not have been a thing yesterday.

“John is particularly adept at anticipating changes in computer science and what’s going to be cutting edge. He’s very aggressive about identifying what we need to do to. If he catches wind that there’s a skill set a business might want from our graduates, he’ll develop a special course that targets that skill and gets students working in those classes,” said Swearingen.


Heritage University computer science graduate Eliseo Alcala works at Noel Communications Jan. 18, 2019 in Yakima, Wash. (GORDON KING/Gordon King Photography)

Besides in-class time, a significant portion of Small’s education at Heritage was outside the classroom in an internship designed just for him.

Small worked with Heritage founder Dr. Kathleen Ross for two years researching a process for archiving documents for the Institute for Student Identity and Success.

Internships offer Heritage students meaningful opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in class, explore their particular interests, and develop new strengths and understanding of real-world environments (see “Conferencing In” on page 8).

Tsiligaridis happily cited a few of the students he’s helped into internships.

“Jesus Mendez, who graduated last year, did work at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. Ermenejildo Rodriguez interned at Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction, then got a computer programming job at Costco headquarters in Seattle. Jeremiah Schmidt did an internship at IGERT Ecosystem Informatics and is now doing meaningful work in his community at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic.”

Like Mendez, Rodriguez and Schmidt, every computer science major at Heritage will have had at least one internship before he or she graduates.

“I am very happy to see that our program is known and well respected in the Yakima Valley area,” said Tsiligaridis. “We see our students continuing to thrive.”

Heritage University graduates Meadow Rodriguez and Gerardo Ruelas photographed where they work at the Costco corporate headquarters in Issaquah, Wash. Sept. 19, 2018. (GORDON KING/Gordon King Photography)


Now director of the Information Technology Department at Centralia College where he also teaches computer science courses, Small said his Heritage education was solid – and that his degree was not the only thing he took with him when he graduated.

“My students are almost all low income. Because of my experience at Heritage, I see my job as empowering them.”

Small focuses on personally connecting with students to help them like his mentors at Heritage helped him.

“I see myself in the future working at the state level to support technology, using technology to drive change from within,” said Small, who’s about to earn his master’s degree from Georgia Tech with plans for pursuing his Ph.D. after that.

“The further up I can get in the hierarchy, the more I can drive the decision-making.

“My professors, and really everyone who makes Heritage what it is, showed me that, given the right curriculum and the right support, we can all succeed.”

The Computer Science program at Heritage University focuses on the theory and techniques by which information is encoded, stored, communicated, transformed and analyzed. The program concentrates on the theory of algorithms – which, simply put, are procedures that tell your computer what steps to take to solve a problem or reach a goal – the structure of languages for expression of algorithms, and the design of efficient algorithms for the solution of practical problems. Extra emphasis is placed on the study of everyday computer systems hardware and programs. page11image50103312

A Legacy Grows at Heritage

In October, Heritage University formally dedicated the Sister Kathleen Ross snmj Legacy Giving Circle mural with an event as special as the woman for whom it is named. The university and its supporters celebrated those who make up the circle with an afternoon high tea.


The Giving Circle is comprised of individuals who have included Heritage in their planned giving. “The tea was more than a dedication of a wonderful piece of art,” said David Wise, vice president for Marketing and Advancement. “It was the first of a planned annual recognition of our many committed supporters and an opportunity to thank them for their ongoing support.”

Julie Prather and Norma Chaidez

The mural design was conceptualized by Heritage visual arts major Carlos Prado, who works part-time in the university’s marketing department. Yakima muralist and fabric artist Deborah Ann developed the final design based on Prado’s initial work, and Ellensburg glass artist Julie Prather created the stained glass apples that bear the names of the Giving Circle members.

You can add your name to the Legacy Giving Circle by simply informing Heritage of your plans to include the university in your estate gift. You can bequeath a range of gifts, from stocks and bonds to IRAs, and also name and direct how your funds will be used. For more details, call (509) 865-8587.

Emily Jameson, director of donor development, pours tea for Kathleen Ross and Deborah Ann


Reunion Celebrates Ten Years of M.L.S.

Front: Terese Abreu (MLS program director), Ryan Inouye, Jillian Legard (’18), Veronica Hernandez (’10) with her son, Anne-Marie VanRiper, Andrew Nguyen and Sarah Gold. Back: Cesar Abreu, Robert Kinkley (’16) and guest, McKenna Smyth, Tai Pham (’08), Martha Coronel, Emily Hennings, Priscilla Fairall, Thanh Nguyen and guest.

Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) alumni from throughout Washington state traveled to Wapato in September to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the MLS program. The event brought together alums and current Heritage MLS students for an evening of gourmet pizza, craft beers and camaraderie at HopTown Wood Fired Pizza.

“It was a nice opportunity to offer inspiration and guidance to new students,” said alumnus Robert Kinkley.

Plans for the reunion were put in motion by the students, faculty and alums in the MLS program who wanted a way to commemorate the anniversary with a bit of a homecoming. Alumni Connections facilitated the event on their behalf.

“Events like these are a great way to reconnect with friends or to make new friends and professional contacts,” said Anne-Marie VanRiper, Heritage alumni relations coordinator. “You don’t have to wait for Alumni Connections to plan an event near you. We love working with groups to build experiences that meet their needs.”

¡Viva Mexico! Heritage celebrates Mexican culture with El Grito de Independencia

On a crisp fall Saturday, Heritage University was awash in the sights and sounds of Mexico—girls in brightly colored skirts swirling and swishing to the music of the mariachi, children swinging wooden sticks at piñatas filled with goodies, and food vendors selling piping hot churros
and street tacos. It was the university’s first celebration of El Grito de Dolores, an event of cultural significance for those with cultural ties to Mexico.

El Grito de Dolores, translated to Cry of Dolores, is celebrated annually on September 15 to commemorate the start of the Mexican War of Independence. The war broke out in the early morning hours of September 16, 1810, in the town of Dolores when the Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla organized a forced freeing of jailed revolutionaries, rang the church bell to gather his congregation and called upon them to take up arms for the cause of freedom. What followed was ten years of war against Spain, which ended in 1821 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire.

Diana Maria Oliveros Martinez from the Consulate of Mexico in Seattle called out the traditional El Grito proclamation.

“Respecting and celebrating cultural diversity is a core value at Heritage that goes back to our founding,” said Dr. Melissa Hill, interim vice president for student affairs. “Many of our students have strong ties to the Mexican culture, whether it is through parents or grandparents who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, or perhaps they themselves immigrated here. Events such as El Grito are opportunities to break down barriers and unite us all as we learn about one another and celebrate our common human experience.”

Student groups, such as the Omega Delta Phi fraternity, hosted food and activity booths during the event.

Heritage’s El Grito de Independencia celebration brought roughly 500 people to campus. The family-friendly event featured Folklorical dancers, piñatas and games for the children, performances by the Central Washington University Mariachi Club, food vendors, and a family movie. The event culminated with the traditional delivery of the El Grito proclamation. El Grito was called out by Diana Maria Oliveros Martinez, a visiting dignitary from the Consulate of Mexico in Seattle.

Video from the event can be seen on Heritage’s YouTube channel, HeritageWithinReach.

Home Growing a Workforce

Most students graduating in May spend the summer looking for their first big job. Not Sandra Benitez (B.A., Business Administration, 2018). When she graduated last spring, she walked right back into the office where she had interned as a student – now as a full-time employee. Over the last two years, ten other people have done the same thing.

They’re participants in a growing Heritage University business internship program that pairs juniors and seniors with companies looking to not only offer experiential learning for students but to potentially hire them.

Fertile soil, lots of sunshine and a long growing season make Yakima County first in the state for value of
crop and livestock products. Agriculture contributes a whopping $1.2 billion to the local economy. It’s a big number, and it’s growing, said Vicky Swank, business administration professor at Heritage.

“Heritage’s business internship program is growing with it.”

Swank oversees the program, placing students with majors in business administration, finance and accounting with companies that want to give them meaningful working world experience.

A job after graduation isn’t guaranteed but, often job offers are extended. Since the summer of 2017, almost half – 10 out of 22 students – were hired by the employer where they interned.

“From Stadelman Fruits to Yakima Chief Hops to Roy Farms, our students are doing meaningful internships and getting hired,” said Swank.

She said Heritage has recognized a perfect fit between its students and area agriculture companies.

“We have young people who attend Heritage and they want to stay in the Valley because of their families. With the human resource needs in the valley creating incredible opportunities, we strive to provide educational resources to meet these needs.”

For some, such as Heritage junior Alfonso Gonzalez-Colin, the opportunity to enter their careers starts long before graduation. He started what was to be a summer work experience with Stadelman Fruit last June. By the end of the summer, the internship turned into a part- time position in the company’s accounting department. By the time Gonzalez-Colin graduates, he will have two years of professional experience with a company that he loves, and in the career he is studying to enter.

Heritage University alumni Krystal Treece and Sandra Benitez work at Roy Farms Oct. 17, 2018 in Moxee, Wash. (GORDON KING/Gordon King Photography)

Swank considers a significant part of her job to be that of preparing Heritage students for the internships many will pursue.

“Our students often come to us needing to feel more confident in their communication, probably having no experience in the business world,” she said. “This is one of the areas around which we design our curriculum.”

Every business class at Heritage requires students to do at least one oral presentation. It’s those “soft skills,” said Swank that, along with rigorous course requirements, make students better communicators, positioning them for success in an internship and beyond.

A Heritage advisory board consisting of area business leaders makes recommendations that keep Heritage’s curriculum strong. Its members weigh in on experiences that can make Heritage students stand out from the crowd.

John Reeves, an agriculture industry expert and Heritage board member, sees ag industry internships as key in that student experience – and key in making Heritage students most useful in the ag industry.

“There will be 10 billion people on the planet by the year 2050,” said Reeves. “That means developing more and better ways to feed more and more people. For an area that is a true mecca of agriculture, that’s a big opportunity.

“For Heritage and its students, these internships represent a great opportunity to be a significant part of it.”

“We create a better-equipped graduate by always asking how we can better prepare them,” said Swank. “What else can we do to develop a student who is a strong communicator, is collaborative and works with others, and a critical thinker who approaches a problem and comes up with a solution?

“We tell our students, ‘Don’t go to your boss with problems all day long – go in there with solutions.’ We give them experiences in the classroom so that they can improve those skills.”


Mike Goettl, CEO at Yakima Chief Hops, first heard of Heritage’s professional internship program while on a campus tour.

“He thought it sounded like the perfect way to give young people meaningful work and real-life experience and give us potential new employees,” said Lisa Garcia, Yakima Chief Hops human resources director. “Mike has been a big advocate for partnering with Heritage as part of our search for future employees.”

Garcia works with several educational institutions – Yakima Valley College, Central Washington University and Perry Tech among them. She says Heritage students have a particularly strong work ethic, an eagerness to learn, and a huge desire and determination to do well at their jobs.

“With Heritage, we started out with three really strong interns, and we’re working to expand our program,” said Garcia. “Our goal is to increase our internship program with Heritage to six to 10 students.”

Like most Heritage student interns, Denisse Gutierrez, Business Administration ’18, went into her internship with experience in the agriculture industry. Her dad owns a small orchard, so she was used to helping pick apples.

“The whole thing just feels familiar, so that’s nice, yet I’m working in areas of the company that give me new experiences.”

As an intern at Roy Farms, Gutierrez helped with safety audits, drug and alcohol testing and data input. As the months went on, she had the opportunity to get a sense of the bigger picture at the company.

“Towards the end of the internship, I was attending most of the weekly all- company meetings. Everyone would talk about what they were doing, and I just soaked it all up. I really learned a lot.”

Gutierrez did a second internship at Yakima Chief Hops where she was ultimately hired – and considers both huge personal growth experiences she wouldn’t have had in the classroom.

“In my first internship, initially I kind of kept to myself. But you interact with a lot of different people in the working world. As I kept talking to more and more people in the office and the warehouse and the fields, I just kind of opened up. Your communication skills really develop.

“I had an amazing experience during my internship,” said Sandra Benitez, who feels Swank’s placement of her with Roy Farms matched her with the perfect company.

“I have worked in agriculture my entire life. I had let Vicky know that this was something that I wanted to do in the long run, and I know this is my future.”

Sandra Benitez’s internship at Roy Farms led to a position in the company’s human resources department.

Reeves sees big things for Heritage interns.

“First, our students’ work ethic is unquestionable. Nothing’s been handed to them,” he said. “Then there’s this opportunity. With

lots of private equity coming into Washington State and a big bunch of that into Yakima, we’re looking at everything from robots to super high tech irrigation to drones, with big companies and lots of investment.

“And when they receive this education and find meaningful work in this industry, we have provided the opportunity to uplift not only them but their families. These kids lift themselves up, their families, our community, the county and then the nation. That’s what makes America great.”

“I’m in awe every day of our students. What they bring to everything they do and to these companies. The positive outlook, the persistence, tenacity, motivation, eagerness, this can-do attitude,” said Swank. “What employer wouldn’t want an employee like that?”

To learn how your company can partner with Heritage University’s business administration internship program, contact Vicky Swank at, or call (509) 865-0726.

Honoring Our Elders

Loren Selam, Sr., Marlene Spencer Simla, Wanda Sampson and Delano Saluskin (pictured clockwise from top left)

Each November, Heritage University celebrates Native American Heritage Month by recognizing four Yakama tribal elders for their lifetime contributions to their community. This year’s honorees include a businessman; an artist and child welfare advocate; an ordained minister; and a former police officer, cultural preservationist and spiritual leader.

Delano Saluskin has a deep and abiding commitment to building the health and vitality of the Yakama Nation’s resources and its members. His foundation to serve Yakama Nation began through the encouragement of his grandfather, Alex Saluskin, who inspired his grandchildren to obtain a college education. Much of his life has been dedicated to helping the tribe develop its economic sovereignty. During his 15 year tenure as the Tribal Director, Saluskin, helped to build several of the Nation’s most prosperous industries including Legends Casino, Yakamart and Yakama Forest Products, which provides much-needed jobs for tribal members and funding for programs and services. He joined Tribal Council in 2012 and continues his service today. Along with his commitment to the economic success of the Yakama Nation, Saluskin is passionate about the physical and spiritual wellness of his people. He is a strong advocate for mental health programs that provide holistic wrap-around services that encourage our young people to turn to traditional teaching instead of gangs, drugs and alcohol.

Wanda Sampson is a licensed and ordained minister who leads the Yakama Valley Fellowship, which was first started by her late husband decades ago. She spent 43 years in social services helping people at their time of greatest need before retiring eight years ago to devote her time to the ministry. In addition to the monthly spiritual revivals that she leads, Sampson is a dedicated volunteer with Noah’s Ark Homeless Shelter in Wapato, Washington. She and her friends provide monthly potluck meals to the people who rely on their services and gather and fill backpacks with hats, gloves and necessities to distribute to those in need each winter.

Lonnie Selam, Sr. is a protector of people, a preserver of the culture, and a spiritual leader. Raised by his grandparents, he grew up learning the traditional ways, speaking the language and moving around as they followed the seasons and the foods. These early learnings instilled in him a deep connection with his culture and commitment to help the Yakama people. He spent ten years as an officer with Yakama Tribal Police before being appointed by Tribal Council to preserve the Yakama cultural heritage through the Nation’s Cultural Resource Program. He spent 18 years working to build the prosperity of the Yakama Nation and to protect its sovereign treaty rights as a member of Tribal Council. Even now he continues his service as a spiritual leader with the Toppenish Long House.

Marlene Spencer Simla is a talented artist and a tireless advocate for children. She attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe before transferring to Ft. Lewis College in Colorado to earn her bachelor’s degree and later earned a master’s degree from Heritage College. Throughout her lifetime, Spencer Simla has helped hundreds of children and young adults build a foundation for life-long learning and to find safe and loving homes. She spent 17 years as a center director with early childhood education, and 22 years working with children and family welfare services. Spencer Simla’s paintings have graced numerous publications and have been shown at the Yakama Nation Cultural Museum, the Central Washington State Fair, and the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. She is a storyteller who rewrites and illustrates Native American legends.

The four elders were recognized during a ceremony at Heritage that kicked off the university’s month-long celebration. A series of ads that feature their stories and images ran in the Yakama Nation Review and the Yakima Herald during the month.

Science SPYS

Dr. Julie Randolph-Habecker from PNWU talks Trino Savala and Kanani Heemsah, both students at Yakama Nation Tribal School, through the extraction of DNA from strawberries.

White Swan High School eleventh grader Joselin Villanueva wants to be an obstetrician. Her friend and classmate Christina Vasquez wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. Both girls are bright, articulate and passionate about their education and career goal. Still, the deck is stacked against them. Statistically, they are among the population that is most at risk for low academic attainment. They come from one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the state of Washington, are persons of color, and neither girls’ parents have a college degree. However, behind these young women is a team of educators determined to give them every opportunity to break away from statistics to find their own personal success.

Villanueva and Vasquez were two of ten students who participated in the Heritage University and Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences’s (PNWU) joint Summer Program for Yakama Students (SPYS) research experience. The youth spent 40 hours a week for five weeks immersed in science and culture at the two universities.

Dr. Mirna Ramos-Diaz (left) and Heritage student mentor Mireya Cruz (right) look on as Yakama Nation Tribal School student Isela Cuevas works with the microscope in the university’s lab.

Their experience started at Heritage where they were introduced to biology and chemistry. They spent time in the laboratory examining single-celled organisms through the microscope and learning how to use pipets. After a week at Heritage, they spent the next two weeks at PNWU learning about the scientific method and how to design, execute and present an experiment. They studied cells and mitosis, isolated salmon DNA, and were introduced to viral and bacterial illnesses. During their second week at the medical school, they delved into the human brain and central nervous system. They dissected sheep brains and cows eyes to get a better understanding of the nervous system and reviewed case studies on Alzheimer’s disease and autism. Peppered into their studies were lectures and conversations from Native American medical and environmental scientists from throughout the nation who shared with them a bit about their journeys. That, said Villanueva and Vasquez, was one of the most powerful parts of the experience.

“Hearing from the speakers gave us inspiration,” said Villanueva. “It made me feel like even though we come from a small school, there are lots of options and we have choices. If they could do it, we can too.”

Western science immersion was only part of the story. Native American and Latino values and tradition, such as seasonality, sacrifice and trust, were woven into lessons throughout the experience.

“There was an interconnectivity of everything that the students were working on and experiencing,” said Dr. Mirna Ramos-Diaz, assistant professor of family medicine at PNWU and co-coordinator of the program. “For example, when they were talking about the life cycle of the organisms they were studying, they would discuss the seasons of the things that

are around them and part of their lives, such as the seasons for gathering roots or hunting elk.”

Students’ SPYS experience was capped off with the presentation of their research and journals. Pictured here is Jayenell Lee, a student at White Swan High School.

Students would reflect daily on their lessons and how those relate to their own culture. Tribal elders were present at each session to share their stories with the students. During their final week of labs, they worked with Ciarra Greene, a Nez Perce tribal member who is an expert in traditional ecological knowledge.

“As a Native educator, the value of integrating traditional knowledge as a basis for redirecting how we teach our youth throughout the SPYS program held and holds great merit for educational attainment,” said Maxine Janis, Heritage University associate professor, president’s liaison for Native American affairs, and co-coordinator of SPYS.

The summer science experience was part of a larger, on-going partnership between Heritage and PNWU to build the pipeline of Native American and Hispanic students studying the health sciences and moving into medical careers. Currently, only 6% of all medical school students in the United States are Latino(a). That percentage drops to a mere 0.3% for Native Americans students. This lack of representation negatively impacts health care, said Ramos-Diaz, especially in rural communities like the Yakima Valley where there are higher numbers of Native and Hispanic people.

“We know that having diversity in the medical field is crucial to providing good, quality health care,” said Ramos-Diaz. “Patients who receive care from someone who looks like them, understands their culture, values and traditions, are more likely to trust and feel comfortable with their health care provider and to follow through with their doctor’s instructions.”

The two universities started working together two years ago through an after-school program called Roots to Wings, which was founded by PNWU in 2013. Like SPYS, participating students are exposed to college and the health sciences through mentorship and hands-on learning. Roots to Wings is open to kids from the sixth through 12 grade who go to school in the Harrah or Mt. Adams School Districts or the Yakama Nation Tribal School. Up until this year, Roots to Wings students between the ages of 16 and 18 were able to travel to Washington D.C. to participate in a 10-week, paid Native American Summer Research Internship at the National Institute of Health (NIH). However, when the NIH changed their policy to participants had to be 18 or over unless they were accompanied by a parent or guardian for the duration of the experience, several Roots to Wings students who had been accepted were unable to go.

Heritage Assistant Professor in Biology Dr. Bob Kao led students through an introduction to the tools of the lab during their first week of SPYS.

That’s when the idea for SPYS came to be. Ramos- Diaz, Janis, and local Native American physician Dr. Naomi Lee had been talking for some time about ways to partner on outreach for Native youth in the lower Yakima Valley. When word came down that the Roots to Wings kids who were underage  wouldn’t be able to travel to DC, the women started talking about what they could do to mirror the summer program locally. Lee had already designed a chemistry curriculum in anticipation of the partnership, which Ramos-Diaz used as a platform to build the SPYS curriculum. Funding the program was the next hurdle. Ramos-Diaz reached out to Dr. Rita Devine at NIH to see if funding could be made available to support the summer experience. The summer camp was a brand new concept for the NIH. They were intrigued and agreed to fund the experience. In a matter of a few weeks, SPYS was born.

“We wanted to create the same experience here in Yakima County that they would have gotten in DC, plus a little bit more,” said Janis. “We designed a curriculum that would challenge them with the science and help them build those soft skills, likewriting and working in teams, which will serve them throughout their academic careers. We also wanted to help them build their work ethic, so at the end of the experience, we paid them. In essence, this was their summer job.”

“We had all this great hands-on experience which was really cool,” said Vasquez. “And, we were getting paid to learn the things that we will be doing in the future.”

Looking back, said Ramos-Diaz, the policy change at NIH was a bit of a blessing in disguise. “Not every student is ready for the rigors of the NIH internship, the academic rigors as well as the stress of being so far away from home, separated from their families for so long,” she said. “Through SPYS they are able to strengthen their academic skills even further.”

Yakama Nation Tribal School students Eric Pebeashy, Trino Savala and Isela Cuevas record images and data of the organisms they are viewing through the microscopes.

And that, said Janis, is what it is all about, helping kids become stronger academics, to expose them to a world without limits, and to help them build the resiliency that will take them from high school to Heritage to PNWU and into the community where they will impact the health and well-being for us all.

RADLab – Digital Storytelling of Rural America

Rural America. It’s not just country music and acres upon acres of farmlands. It’s a complex stewpot of people from different cultures and ethnicities. It’s multi-million dollar agribusinesses that communities depend upon for their economic prosperity. And, sadly, it’s communities that struggle to deal with the same social ills that impact larger cities–poverty, crime, violence, substance abuse–but often without the resources necessary to make a difference.

A joint project between Heritage University, Whitman College and Seattle-based PopUPJustice gave students a voice to tell the story of rural America through their eyes. Called Rural American Digital Lab (RADlab) students became filmmakers, producing short documentaries on topics of social justice that impact their communities.

RADLab invited 11 students from Heritage along with 11 students from neighboring Whitman College in Walla Walla, to come together to learn, in person and across campuses, how to leverage digital technology to shine a light on the fabric of
life in rural America. The goal said Aurora Martin, the founder of PopUPJustice, was not just to introduce students to the conferencing from the Whitman power of digital technology and storytelling to affect societal change, but also to build bridges and community across two very diverse student bodies.

For Heritage students, RADLab was an opportunity for many to tell their own stories because they or their family members were the subjects in videos that dealt with compelling topics including domestic violence, gender issues, homelessness and immigration status.

(Pictured left to right) Heritage students Cecilia Vizcaino, Noemi Sanchez, Madeline Alviso Ramirez and Maria Soto present their project at Whitman College.

The structure of RADLab was intense–19 days packed with training on advanced digital equipment and audio and video editing software. Every morning, Heritage students, whether in person or through video conferencing from the Whitman campus, heard lectures from subject matter experts about rural issues, ethics in storytelling, podcasting and video log best practices, and more. Every afternoon, the students were let loose to brainstorm, conduct interviews with their subjects or shoot supplemental footage, and edit their project.

Maria Soto, a third-year Heritage student who is double majoring in social work and history, said the quality of the speakers exceeded most students’ expectations. “We did not know there would be such a strong team from all over Washington,” she explained. “We heard from a YouTuber, a Ph.D., and filmmakers who taught us technical skills, like ways to shoot from the back to protect identity. And the importance of moral responsibility and content in storytelling because this is someone’s life.”


The students were broken into groups, and Soto’s group created a project based on the poem, I am Joaquin by Rodolfo Gonzalez. It explores the complexity of Mexican-American identity. Her group filmed the stories of four individuals, and two group members were featured in those stories, which dealt with the challenges of gender identity, undocumented students, farm workers, and a cholo who is giving back to the community.



“I was born in Mexico but have spent the majority of my life here,” explained Soto, noting that she, too, has struggled with issues of Mexican and American identity. “I learned it’s okay to be both. And that we are all part of the same ethnic group, but we can be all of these different things, too.”

Noemi Sanchez is a junior history major who participated in RADLab and also appeared in the video, sharing her experiences as a queer and non- binary student in a conservative rural area.

“For me, one of the skills I further developed was navigating conversations about social justice with people who are not affected by it,” noted Sanchez, who said sharing her story was scary but also liberating. “I didn’t have much experience filming or adjusting audio, but these skills have also helped me produce flyers and short videos for other student organizations and community groups I’m part of.”

Noemi Sanchez and visual arts major Anthony Tzib start their initial research for their RADLab project.

This is exactly the vision that Kimberly Bellamy-Thompson, chair of the Social Sciences Department, had for RADLab, which took almost a year of planning and conference calls to put into motion. “Journalists haven’t been paying attention to rural America, and I’m concerned about the repercussions of not having a voice,” said Bellamy-Thompson. “Here we are just two hours from Seattle by car and from San Francisco by plane, and yet, we have such disparity in digital technology in rural America.”

Thompson said RADLab allowed these students to bring attention to their stories while also gaining job skills and showcasing what they could do when given the resources in a hands-on, experiential learning setting.

Martin, whose organization helps to consult and incubate innovation and social connections, saw RADLab’s mission to be two-fold. “At the end of the day, RADLab was a community-building experiment that sought to plant seeds of innovation starting with the stories of why.” Explaining further, Martin said that because they worked with a shoestring budget that required innovative thinking just to launch the program, they were forced to strip away many extraneous factors and focus on those who could best inform solutions – end users who actually live the problem and who benefit from solutions.

“For me, this was a story of grit and grace,” said Martin. “The ideas are there; they just need the resources.”

Bridging the diverse cultures between the Heritage University and Whitman College students was a key element of RADLab.

Blake Slonecker, chair of Humanities at Heritage and a member of the RADLab design team, said one of his goals for his students in any learning experience is that they leave asking different questions than when they started. For one Whitman student, that meant overcoming a fear of the homeless and being willing to see them as a people with a story of their own. For Heritage students, it was transforming the way they saw the power of digital technology to produce words and images that told a story in ways that can impact hearts and minds for change.

“During the very last few days, we got together with the Whitman students, and we watched all of the videos,” said Sanchez. “And even from the people in my small group, I learned so much I didn’t know.”

Called to Serve

Colleen Sheahan in the math class at West Chestnut Academy school in Yakima, Wash.

As Colleen Sheahan moves through the math classroom at West Chestnut Academy (WCA), students bent over their geometry work call out to her. “PC, PC,” they say. “Come look at this.” PC, short for Pastor Colleen, is their affectionate nickname for the founder and head of this private Christian school that serves children from preschool through 12th grade. Sheahan stops, looks over the geometric shapes being formed by Popsicle sticks, gives a few words of encouragement before moving on. She knows each of these kids by name, their families, and their stories behind what brought them to WCA.

By her own admission, Sheahan wasn’t looking to become a teacher, let alone start and run a school when she enrolled in a pilot bachelor’s degree program offered in partnership between Heritage, Central Washington University, and what was then Yakima Valley Community College. It was simply the most convenient way for her to earn a degree—any degree— without leaving home. She was a licensed pastor ministering to children through Westpark United Methodist Church in Yakima, and she figured it could help her in her work there.

Two years of classes and long nights studying, Sheahan graduated, still without any intention of teaching. She went back to her life ministering to children. Then, a year later, something happened. Sheahan went to sleep.


“I had the most intense dream that I had started a new school. When I woke up, it stuck with me. Then things around me kept pointing me back towards the idea of this school, that we had to do this,” she said.

That was in the spring. Six months later, the non-profit West Chestnut Academy was born. It opened in 2001 with just 12 students and was housed within the Methodist church. The next year, enrollment grew to 60. Ever since then, it has averaged 80 students annually. Last year the school moved from the church into a larger facility left vacant when St. Paul’s Cathedral School moved from the location they had been housed in since 1914.

“There is a significant need for schools like ours in our community. Smaller schools that
can provide individualized attention to students, that celebrates and meets the needs of the whole child,” she said.

In many ways, the mission and vision of West Chestnut Academy mirror that of Heritage University. It is open to all with the desire to learn and embraces diversity—be that ethnic, socioeconomic, or in learning styles. Tuition is kept as low as possible so that children from all income levels can attend.

“We’ve had single mothers come in and pay their child’s tuition with their tip money,” said Sheahan. “We keep things very bare bones.”

But, she points out, bare bones does not mean lower quality. The school is licensed by the State of Washington. Students participate in art, music, and physical education along with the staples of math, English and science. They flourish in the smaller classes—particularly those who struggled in public schools where they are one in a crowd of hundreds.

“We have kids that come to us in the third or fourth grade who cannot read,” Sheahan said. “Within a year their parents are coming back to us saying ‘I can’t believe my child is reading!’ It is a real accomplishment for the child.”

This June, the academy will send its 59th graduate out into the world. Alumni of this school have gone on to colleges and universities, trade schools and into the workforce. Sheahan beams like any proud parent when talking about her grads.

“It’s a lot of work to care about kids. Here we provide a sanctuary for children where they can feel comfortable and are able to learn,” she said.

“Seeing them be successful as adults when they struggled so much as a child, this is what it is all about.”

Colleen Sheahan’s commitment to children and her focus on providing quality preschool through 12th grade education to students in the Yakima Valley led to her nomination and awarding of the Violet Lumley Rau Outstanding Alumnus(a) Award at Heritage’s 36th annual Heritage University commencement held May 5, 2018 at the SunDome in Yakima, Wash. (GORDON KING/Gordon King Photography)